The skies over Srinagar are abuzz with hovering air force choppers dropping relief material and rescuing people marooned in the worst flood to have hit Jammu and Kashmir in over a century. And below, the inflatable rescue boats, wooden canoes and improvised floating devices made of plastic drums and tyre tubes criss-cross the waters to complement the effort. But between the two, the air is thick with contending narratives battling for public attention and mindspace. And as the waters recede to reveal a colossal humanitarian tragedy, the Kashmir floods leave behind a contentious political discourse, whose fallout will be long and bitter.
This contestation has not only played out in the disproportional media focus on the army’s relief effort and the intermittent stone throwing by groups of angry youth at choppers and National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) boats, but also in the determined bid by the separatist groups to launch a parallel aid effort, which struggled to find mention anywhere.
Occasionally, the two efforts came into conflict as happened when JKLF supremo Yasin Malik snatched an NDRF boat to deliver the aid himself. Malik set up a relief camp on Badshah bridge close to his flooded locality Maisuma and personally delivered supplies to the people trapped deep in the interiors.
And between these two politically charged extremes, there were hundreds of local volunteers who risked their lives to reach the deepest interiors to rescue people, but went largely ignored in the coverage of the flood. There were youth such as Muhammad Salman and Niyaz Ahmad Dar from Jawahar Nagar and Padshahi Bagh, respectively, who saved scores of people in their improvised boats. There were scores of Kashmiri students who came from other parts of the country to contribute to the aid effort, with some of them staying back to organise and collect the relief material and despatching it by air. And there was the noted painter Masood Hussain who used his small inflatable boat to save 50 of his neighbours in the worst-hit Jawahar Nagar.
“We didn’t have sophisticated boats, but we felt it was our duty to come to the aid and rescue of our people,” said Niyaz Ahmad Dar who, along with his friends, cobbled together a makeshift raft made from wooden planks and tyre tubes. “We went to places that were inaccessible and drowned in 15 to 20 feet of water and rescued people, some of whom were trapped in the third storeys of their houses.”
It is the stories of the youth like Dar and hundreds of other unknown volunteers that went untold in the media focus on the floods, and, as a result, generated resentment in Kashmir. The gratuitous spotlight on the commendable work done by the security forces fuelled a counter narrative that put accent on the role of the local volunteers, who were soon hailed as the real heroes. The army-centric media coverage of the calamity was seen as a ploy to divert the attention from the unfolding human tragedy to the valour of the rescue effort.
“It almost came across as if there was an attempt to drown the Kashmir problem with the flood. There was an implicit message in the reportage: now that the army is helping people out, they have lost the right to complain and resist,” says senior PDP leader Naeem Akhter.
Akhter, however, heaped praise on Prime Minister Narendra Modi who, he said, glided above this agenda. “The prime minister’s own conduct was gracious and dignified. He expressed a genuine sense of empathy for the people of the state.”
The flood raised troubling questions for the separatist groups who initially struggled to show their presence on the ground. A part of the reason for this is that separatists didn’t have the cadre meant to tackle a disaster of this scale. Relief and rehabilitation work was never their strong point, not even in case of around 200 youth who died through 2008-10 unrest and the hundreds of others who were injured, many of whom lost their eyesight completely or partially.
But leaders such as Malik, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, Syed Ali Shah Geelani and Nayeem Khan soon got their act together, knowing the political costs of inaction. They sent their workers to visit the flood-hit areas of Srinagar. Mirwaiz set up a relief camp at his ancestral Islamia High School in downtown Srinagar. A large number of flood victims were put up in the school and food was arranged for them.
Malik procured a wooden canoe and went from locality to locality to deliver relief. Khan set up a relief camp at Hyderpora. Geelani’s own residence was inundated and the workers at his office were rescued to safety with some difficulty. The communication breakdown ensured that all separatist factions were unable to issue their regular press statements, which further pushed them into obscurity.
“We are trying to do our bit,” says Khan. “But actual relief effort on the ground is being carried out by Kashmiri youth and we are proud of them.”
However, there was no doubt that the air force and NDRF were at the forefront of the relief operation, pressing all their resources into action to rescue people. When the government collapsed with all its vital installations going under water, including the local Doordarshan and radio station, it was left to the army to pull together a rescue and rehabilitation programme.
Around 79 transport aircraft, IAF choppers and army aviation corps and 30,000 armymen were deployed for the rescue operations. Similarly, 35 teams of the NDRF, each comprising 47 personnel, were engaged in the rescue operation since they were rushed from Bhatinda, Ghaziabad and Gandhinagar on 7 September as flood waters gushed into the city after breaching its borders. The force, according to its spokesman, has evacuated around 60,000 people so far.
But their combined effort soon led to public anger when the marooned people in some parts perceived that they had given first preference to rescue their own personnel trapped in Badamibagh Cantonment and the tourists stranded in hotels along the Dal lake. This anger was, in part, responsible for the stone throwing as was the separatist sentiment. But these incidents were fewer and far between than what the excessive media focus on them suggested.
The J&K Police, which has proved itself as a lean, mean fighting machine when it comes to tackling insurgency and the stone pelting on the streets was unable to put together a rescue effort. In fact, for the first week after the floods, there were fewer police personnel on the ground. Most of the law enforcement installations in the city, including the Police Control Room, were swept away by the flood. A week into the flood, the force marginally came back on the scene but mainly to maintain law and order. As a result, the police faced public resentment for its absence from the scene when its presence was desperately needed.
But beyond the passing public anger, stone throwing, the army’s relief operation, the incompetence of the state government and the separatist discourse, there is no missing the fact that the aftermath of the catastrophic flood has created an odd context for the different actors to deal with. While for the army, the floods are an opportunity to reach out to the people with whom it has been in a state of confrontation over the past quarter of a century, for the separatist groups, the army’s involvement in the relief and rescue is an anathema to their struggle.
Even the common people have found it difficult to relate to the new dramatic state of affairs. While the victims have had little option but to accept the relief from no matter what source it came from, the unaffected population and even civil society has exhibited an ambivalent approach towards the army’s aid effort. This ambivalence was only exacerbated by the electronic media’s disproportionate focus on the rescue operation launched by air force and the NDRF.
“Why is everybody who is saved or given some relief asked to thank the army?” asks Zahoor Ahmad, a resident of downtown Srinagar who was himself part of the rescue effort. “This is never asked when calamities struck other parts of the country. Why this exception for us?”
But there were also many who were uninhibited in their praise for the army’s role. Seeing army boats bring back rescued people from the drowned Jawahar Nagar locality to a dry patch near Iqbal Park, the spectators saw the army as their saviour when their own government had abandoned them.
“If it was not for the army, people would have died in thousands,” says the elderly Muhammad Razaq Khan, who revealed that his relatives in Jawahar Nagar had been rescued by the soldiers. “Our ministers and police are trained to loot and make money. This is why when there is a crisis, they desert the people.”
In all the public conversation, the harshest comments were reserved for the state government and its inability to reduce, if not stop, the flooding and devastation of Srinagar, the Valley’s administrative and economic hub. The state government was blamed for not following the time-honoured flood control manual even when it knew that the heaving Jhelum was rumbling down towards Srinagar after drowning parts of south Kashmir.
“In the past, when the government sensed the prospect of flood in Srinagar, it breached the embankment at Kandizal, which comes ahead of the river entering Srinagar and water would divert to low-lying sparsely inhabited areas. This was followed by diverting some Jhelum water to Dal lake. This reduced the level of water in the river,” said Saleem Beigh, a member of the National Monuments Authorities. “But what happened now was that this practice was followed in reverse. First Srinagar was drowned, then the Jhelum water was diverted to Kandizal and Dal.”
Beigh says that no flood protection work in the traditional sense of the term has been taken up in Valley since 1965. “Channels and flood protection bunds were what used to save Srinagar and other parts of the Valley from flash floods,” he says. “The government has allowed them to be encroached upon and filled up for construction.”
But the sweep and the scale of the floods is such that it went beyond the wildest imagination of the state government. It drowned 70 percent of Srinagar, including its posh colonies such as Raj Bagh, Jawahar Nagar, Barzalla and Hyderpora. And if the army and the local volunteers hadn’t mounted a swift operation, the death toll could have risen manifold from the current 200 or thereabouts. But despite that, the city is struggling to regain its bearings 12 days after the deluge. Chaos still rules the streets with people criss-crossing the city looking for the missing kin. Thirteen more bodies, including that of three children, were recovered from a collapsed house at Jawahar Nagar and brought to the Jhelum embankment. The bodies were in a decomposed state and could not be recognised immediately. Along with humans, hundreds of cattle and dogs have perished, which has further raised the health risk for the people.
With relief measures gathering momentum, the politics has not remained far behind, some of it turning the murky flood waters choppy. Along the limited pavements of the remaining dry streets of the city and the traffic intersections, a dense row of relief camps has come up to cater to the rising demand for medicine, ration and clean drinking water.
There are camps run by local volunteers, separatist groups, NGOs, businessmen and the army and CRPF, sometimes uneasily facing each other. Beneath the hubbub, there is an implicit race to stand up and be counted. More so, for the separatist groups who find it hard to confront a situation where the army — otherwise the perennial other in the Kashmiri narrative — has found a chance to airbrush its image.
So, will the flood really make a fundamental difference to the Kashmir narrative as a section of media has sought to project? “Going by the way the floods unfolded, it was the media that put the politics rather than the tragedy upfront,” says Naseer Ahmad, the author of Kashmir Pending. “And in the process, the same old political binary took the centrestage with the army being projected as the saviour of a hostile people.”
Ahmad does see the play of new factors and dynamics in the post-flood situation, but he sees the army’s role as eventually “no benefit, no loss exercise” with the media’s playing it up to the exclusion of other efforts detracting from its intrinsic worth.
“Much will depend on how the relief effort goes and whether it helps reduce the misery and temper the economic fallout of the flood,” says Ahmad. “And if the economic impact is severe, which it is likely to be, it could only further exacerbate the conflict.”